As many of you know, I am a Scandinavio-phile. I think I just made that word up, but essentially what I mean is that I love all things Scandinavian — traditions, folk pattern, vintage design, modern design, clothing, textiles, dishwater, architecture, etc, etc, etc. So I was so excited when my friend Melissa Bahen — blogger over at LuluTheBaker.com — published Scandinavian Gatherings: From Afternoon Tea to Midsummer Feast.
A little backstory: I first met Melissa last year, when she and her friend Joy invited me to speak at their Portland-based creative conference The Hello Sessions. I gave a workshop in 2015 at the conference, and this past year I was the keynote speaker. Melissa and Joy are two of the warmest, loveliest women I have ever met, and working with them was a great experience. This year at the conference, Melissa had copies of her then-very-new book Scandinavian Gatherings sitting on a table. I immediately swooped one up and began drooling over the contents. A few weeks later I had the privilege of interviewing Melissa about the book for my Interviews with People I admire series. Below you can also see some of the gorgeous images from the book. Know anyone who is in love with all things Scandinavian as I am? Hint: they might like this book for a holiday gift!
And without further ado, I present to you Melissa Bahen! We discuss many things, including her path, the story behind the book, the process of making it, and some of her favorite parts.
Lisa: Melissa, I am so happy to have you on my blog. I’m especially excited about your new book. But before we get into that, I’d love for you to tell my readers a bit about you. Where are you from originally? What was your path to becoming a food blogger?
Melissa: Hi Lisa! Thank you so much for having me here today, and I’m delighted that you like the book! To tell you a little about myself, I grew up in Las Vegas, which is also where I met my husband, got married, and had my first child. After he finished grad school, we moved up to Oregon, where we live now. I would have been content to stay in Las Vegas forever because my job was there and my family was there, but my husband had spent childhood summers in Oregon and really loved it. And it offered us the lifestyle we both dreamed of: farming and gardening and living on some land. You really can’t get that very easily in Las Vegas!
I started Lulu the Baker in 2008 after joining a group called The Daring Bakers. I think it’s still going strong under the name The Daring Kitchen. It’s basically bloggers and bakers and food enthusiasts from all over the world who make the same “challenge” recipe every month. Some months have very specific requirements where everybody makes exactly the same thing, other months give you more flexibility in choosing flavors, etc. It was one of the original, online bake-along groups, and you had to have a blog to do it, so I started Lulu the Baker. I didn’t tell anyone I knew about it, but one day, one of my sisters left a comment on my blog saying, “I bet you didn’t think anyone would find this!”
Lisa: That is a great story. I love the power of the internet! Recently you published a book called Scandinavian Gatherings. I just about fainted when I saw it because to say I am obsessed with Scandinavian design, culture and traditions would be an understatement! Tell us about how this book came to be. How did you think to create it? Why Scandinavian Gatherings? I take it you have Scandinavian heritage?
Melissa: I do have Scandinavian heritage! My mom’s dad, my Poppy, is full-blooded Norwegian. He was born here in the US to immigrant parents, and lived in Norway for a few years in his late teens. Then he and my grandma, Nana, lived in Sweden for 3 years when I was in college. My family has always been very proud of our heritage. As kids, my brother and sisters and I loved being Norwegian. It was the coolest heritage we could imagine!
My grandpa has always been a big idea man, and he said I should write a book about my Scandinavian heritage for an English-speaking, American audience. I thought it was a brilliant idea, and that was how the seed for the book was first planted.
Lisa: Tell us more about the book — what’s in it, what people can expect when they pick it up, and how people can use it.
Melissa: The book is a collection of recipes and projects inspired by the flavors, customs, and culture of Scandinavia. Each chapter includes menu ideas, recipes, and decor-related projects for a simple gathering inspired by a Scandinavian holiday or season. I was really passionate about having both recipes and projects in one book, because I think they go so beautifully together, and really present a full, well-rounded snapshot. They’re both equally important parts of entertaining. And I like cooking AND making things, so I was loath to chop out either of those aspects of the book.
Scandinavian Gatherings has really appealed to people with some Scandinavian heritage so far, or people whose partners have Scandinavian heritage. I’ve had more than one person buy a copy for each of their siblings, or all of their sisters-in-law, or their friend who just married a Swede. People love to explore their heritage. The book also appeals to readers like you who are really interested in the Scandinavian lifestyle. This book is a really beautiful, accessible way to get a little introduction to some Scandinavian flavors, some style, some traditions. And then for everyone else who doesn’t fit into one of those categories, it’s a really solid, lovely, well-made book.
There are great recipes for breakfasts, dinners, salads, soups, cookies, cakes–they’re all delicious and can hold their own even on an ordinary day where you’re not throwing some kind of party. If you just need a good cake recipe, it’s got several of those. If you want to try something new for dinner, it’s got delicious dinner ideas.
One of the things my editor said early on in the process was to make things “aspirational but attainable.” I really tried to keep that in mind while I was developing both the recipes and the projects. Sometimes I read a recipe and think, “There’s no way I’m ever making that!” In Scandinavian Gatherings, there aren’t any cake mixes or pre-packaged ingredients, no short cuts, but everything is very doable, very approachable. Nothing seems too overwhelming or too scary to tackle, and the majority of the ingredients and materials should be available locally. I really wanted this to be a book for everyone.
Lisa: I am fascinated by the process of making books — the ideation, the writing, the editing, the art direction, the illustration — and what that’s like for authors. What was the process of making the book like for you? What parts did you love and what were the most frustrating? How long did it take from start to finish?
Melissa: The whole process was wonderful! And stressful too, but I enjoyed it and would do it again in a heartbeat. The whole thing came together very organically for me. After my grandpa gave me the idea to write a book about my heritage, I started writing down every idea that came to mind. I wrote them all down on index cards, and I wasn’t particularly picky about what I wrote down; everything made the cut! I kept them all together with a rubber band in my desk, and every time I’d get a new idea, I’d pull out a new card, jot it down, and add it to the pile. Eventually, I decided I needed to do something with the cards that would actually get me nearer to turning them into a book. So I started putting them in separate piles. I didn’t have any themes planned out or anything, I just put ideas that seemed to go together in the same pile. And after a while, the whole concept of holidays and celebrations and get-togethers just kind of manifested itself.
Making the book was a really, really long process from start to finish. I think it was at the end of 2010, when we were visiting my parents for Christmas, that my grandpa first talked to me about writing a book. As I said, it took me a couple of years to really figure out what I wanted to do, then a few more years to get a book proposal and sample chapter written, and then almost two years to the day from finding an agent to publication day.
Once I had a publisher, the turn-around time was actually crazy fast as far as books go. I think I had six months from the day I signed my contract to the day the first draft of my manuscript was due! I had opted out of doing the styling and photography for the book (thank goodness!), but had agreed to do the process photography (showing how to do specific steps) and make all the crafts for the photo shoots. And both of those were huge tasks! I would make a prototype of a project, text a photo to my editor, Hannah Elnan, and the art director, Anna Goldstein, in Seattle, and they would give me feedback.
Sometimes I got the go-ahead to ship the project up to the photographer, but most of the time I had to do at least one round of revisions. More often than not, it took many rounds. The hand-painted tray from the cover, for example, had the potential to be really cute, but just wasn’t coming together. After several underwhelming attempts, I had the idea to ask the illustrator, Andrea Smith, to design an image. My idea was to cut her design out of paper and decoupage it onto the tray. And it turned out really cute…until I tried to seal it, and then it was an utter disaster. So the night before I absolutely had to overnight it to the photo shoot, I bought a brand new tray, spray painted it light blue in my garage, and hand-painted the design onto the tray after my kids went to bed. I sealed it with acrylic spray the next morning, let it dry as long as I possibly could, said a little prayer that the fresh acrylic fumes wouldn’t melt the paint off the tray while in transit, and sent it off. And it turned out perfect! Now it’s in my studio looking pretty on my shelf.
I’ve been asked a few times about how I decided what recipes and projects to put in the book. Once I had settled on the gatherings layout, I looked at each chapter title and asked myself, “If I were hosting this get-together, what would I serve, and what little bits of decor would I make to go along with the theme?” For most of the chapters, I already had more than enough ideas to make a really full, lovely menu and a few cute projects. There were a few chapters with gaps, where I thought, “If I were serving this food, something would be missing. What else would I need?” In those cases, I looked for family recipes that would fit the theme nicely, and if I couldn’t find anything, I did a little research and asked friends with Scandinavian heritage for help. In a few instances, I just couldn’t find a recipe that felt right, so I created something new that fit the bill while still honoring the seasonality of ingredients, the flavors, etc.
Lisa: Which section of the book is the most near and dear to you?
Melissa: Oh gosh, that’s a hard one! That’s like asking who my favorite child is! All of the sections were so much fun to put together. I really love the photography in the Heritage Dinner. I think the styling is just beautiful. And all of the recipes are classics. But the Nordic Brunch has so many long-time family favorites. If I had to choose solely based on recipes, I’d probably pick that one. And the crafts from the brunch chapter are super cute. I have to give myself a pat on the back for those. I actually created the Woodland Tea Party for the sample chapter that I submitted with my book proposal, so those projects and recipes have a special place in my heart because they’ve been around the longest. A lot of the projects from the photos in that chapter–the little toadstool garden picks, the felt garland, the tree trunk cake plate–are the ones I made 3 years ago to take pictures of for my book proposal!
Lisa: What is your favorite recipe? Your favorite craft?
Melissa: Just off the top of my head, my favorite craft is the Danish townhouses from the Nordic Brunch chapter (see photo above). They’re intended to be used as place card holders, but you could use them to hold photos on your desk, menus, holiday cards, small art prints, etc. I was inspired by a picture of some Danish townhouses in the harbor in Copenhagen that my friend, Audrey from This Little Street, posted on Instagram a few years ago. The colors were so beautiful, and all the little roofs in a row were so cute together. The project idea just popped into my head, and I feel like it’s a really unique project that turned out just as darling as I pictured it. I’m sure you can attest to the fact that that’s not always the case with projects!
My favorite recipe is harder. A lot of the recipes in the book are from my family, so when I read them or make them, they remind me of people I love. The Maple Pecan Rings in the brunch chapter are a favorite of everyone in my family. They’re my mom’s specialty. She only makes them for special occasions and special visitors, so if she makes them for you, you have to feel pretty important. And they’re really, really delicious and quite stunning.
Lisa: The book has a really gorgeous combination of styled photos and bright, graphic illustrations. I especially love the illustrations! How did you find the illustrator Andrea Smith and what was it about her work that made you select her?
Melissa: I feel like Andrea’s illustrations really bring the book to life! I’m so lucky to have happened upon her work. I was struggling early on with the aesthetic for the book. I couldn’t picture it in my head, but I could imagine how I wanted it to feel, if that makes any sense. I wanted it to be white, but not stark or ascetic. I wanted color, but not too much color. I wanted it to look fresh but not too modern, timeless but not old or dated. I was on Pinterest one day and typed in “Scandinavian folk art” just to try to get a little inspiration, and an illustration Andrea had done for someone popped up. Which is crazy because the illustration wasn’t particularly Scandinavian, Andrea’s not Scandinavian, and the client wasn’t Scandinavian. But seeing that illustration was like a zing straight to my heart. THAT was how I wanted the book to feel. It was kismet.
I think what really spoke to me was the folk art quality of her work, but done in a fresh, modern, way. Her designs somehow look new and heritage at the same time. And the colors she uses are just gorgeous. They’re such a great combination of brights and pastels. I knew I wanted a lot of white in the book with pops of color, and her illustrations are exactly that
Lisa: Best thing about being Scandinavian?
Melissa: As adult, I would say it’s a connection to that culture that is world-renowned for being friendly and happy and pleasant. But as a kid, we always loved that we had Viking blood!
Lisa: Thank you Melissa! It’s been great chatting with you! I’m going to make some of your crafts and recipes in the next month for the holidays!
And friends, you can get Melissa’s book here, at your local bookstore, or wherever books are sold.